Photo: courtesy Sven Scheutte/Archaologische Zone.
Photo: courtesy Sven Scheutte/Archaologische Zone.
Germany: Sensational Finds at Cologne Medieval Synagogue Excavation
by Samuel D. Gruber
Cologne city archaeologist Sven Schuette has announced what is surely the most remarkable find of the continually remarkable excavation of the medieval synagogue and Jewish quarter of that ancient city - scores of fragments of inscribed slate tablets, some of which appear to have been used as writing tablets - perhaps by scholars and students - and some of which were possibly visible literary or historic texts important to the community. So far the finds have only been reported in local media.
Archaeologists have recently been recovering these and other extensive remains of the synagogue destroyed in 1349, during what is known as as the "Plague Pogrom" on Saint Bartholomew's Night, when the synagogue was burned and many Jews died within.
We now know that a synagogue had stood on the site since at least the 8th century, and there is strong evidence for an earliest Jewish presence on the site. Jews were present in the Rhineland in the Late Roman Period and I believe they maintained a continuous presence in Cologne, which was the major administrative center of the region until Charlemagne began to move his court to Aachen after his coronation as King of Franks in 768 (Schuette has been attacked for pushing for an early synagogue date, but the circumstantial evidence seems to support him).
At the time of the First Crusade in 1096 the synagogue was destroyed and many Jews murdered, but it was rebuilt. After the destruction of 1349 a small Jewish community was reestablished in 1372, but this community did not last long. In 1424 Jews' right to reside in cologne were revoked and the city was Judenrein for centuries. The synagogue remains today are part of the city's rich archaeological zone and part of the fine Archaeological Museum, which also preserve remains of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Cologne.
When in 1349, the night of 23 to 24 August, the Jewish Quarter was attacked and almost all its inhabitants murdered in what was one of the most brutal and devastating massacres of Jews in the late Middle Ages many people took refuge in the synagogue, which was then burned and subsequently looted. It is not clear whether Jews sacrificed themselves as martyrs or if they were attacked after taking refuge in the stone building.
Afterward, whatever was not of value - either because it was too damaged or of unknown use - was thrown as rubble into large pits or left it in place. In one of the pits - which may have been used as a privy and/or rubbish pit before the destruction - archaeologists are now recovering thousands of fragments of the destroyed synagogue, and earlier refuse from the period of intensive Jewish use. There have no reports of finding human remains.
Previously fragments of the stone bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) has been found and published by Scheutte, but now many more have been found and archaeologists are also uncovering fragments of furniture, books, burnt parchment, toys, medicine bottles and even food waste. "It is the largest archaeological collection of finds from a German synagogue," says project manager Schuette.
Perhaps most remarkable find has been a collection of more than seventy fragments of slate on which extensive inscribed writing has been found. More pieces are still coming to light with inscriptions in Hebrew, German and Latin. Sometimes there are just scribbles or drawings, but there are also longer texts. A long poetry text literature from before 1349, is written in German, but in Hebrew script - possibly an important text example of early Yiddish. Only time will will tell what these text contain, already it is clear that we might have a new sort of genizah - though one not deliberately made by Jews to preserve sacred objects and texts to Holy to destroy, but rather an accidental genizah, where fragments of Jewish life and thought have been entombed for centuries by their destroyers. The inscribed tablets are strong evidence for the presence of a yeshiva or Jewish school on the synagogue premises.
It is remarkable that these finds - as well indications of the synagogues earlier history - were overlooked in the excavations by Otto Doppelfeld undertaken in the 1950s, which Scheutte, who began these excavations in 2007, felt required examination and continuation. But Doppelfield was working under intense pressures of time - whereas Scheutte has been given the opportunity, encouragement and budget by the city of Cologne to carry out a careful, continuous and far-reaching project. In the end the story of the Jewish quarter of Cologne, its historic synagogue and the vicissitudes of the Cologne Jewish community through the centuries will be told in a new museum to be erected over and around the synagogue site.
The excavation of the Cologne synagogue tells us much about the medieval Jewish community in Cologne, and also recover important traces of art and architecture. The excavation is also a new chapter in what I call the "archaeology of destruction," following especially the excavation of the demolished synagogues of Regensburg and Vienna, each of which was more systemically dismantled by Christian authorities for material reuse. Some day we may also witness the excavation of the great medieval synagogue of Budapest, which was burned like Cologne, with Jews inside.